Fresh off a weeklong break for FA Cup action, the Premier League is back this weekend with reverse fixtures from the season’s opening round. Additionally, with it now being Gameweek 26, just one-third of the season will be left following this weekend.
Heading into the final push, leaders Chelsea carry a comfortable seven-point cushion into this weekend’s home match versus 19th-place Burnley.
Behind them, Manchester City will hope to remain in striking distance by taking care of business at home against Newcastle. Meanwhile, their third-place neighbors, Man United, hit the road to play a sliding Swansea City side.
While United currently leads the pack, perhaps the most intriguing storyline to close this season is the race for the European qualification places of three through five in the standings.
Southampton presently occupies the fourth spot, but Sunday’s home match against a red-hot Liverpool outfit represents a clash with huge implications at this stage in the campaign.
To a similar extent, the same can be said for Sunday’s heated London derby of sixth-place Tottenham versus eighth West Ham at White Hart Lane.
On the flip side, fifth-place Arsenal travels to Selhurst Park ahead of an expectedly less-fiery derby against fellow Londoners Crystal Palace.
With those ties occupying the top-half of the table, the relegation battle is another race that should produce dramatic results as we enter the final third of the season.
Although their respective 14th and 15th positions are far enough from danger right now, Saturday’s contest between West Brom and Sunderland still comes with some desperation attached.
However, this weekend’s most notable lower-half pairing is Queens Park Rangers at Hull City, which features two teams that used wins last time out to escape the drop zone’s current victims.
In fact, while Hull City dwells in 16th place, their counterparts QPR are only in safe 17th thanks to their goal difference over Aston Villa, who take a five-game losing streak into this Saturday’s home meeting versus Stoke City.
Fortunately for Villa, the squads below them both face uphill road tests, as Burnley embarks on the aforementioned trip to Stamford Bridge and last-place Leicester goes to Goodison Park to play Everton.
So with the stage for this weekend’s slate now set, let’s take a look at the Best XI for Gameweek 26 of Premier League play.
Although Hart’s seven clean sheets are presently tied for fifth among goalkeepers, it’s somewhat surprising that he hasn’t held an opponent scoreless since Dec. 20 against Crystal Palace. That performance capped-off a three-match clean sheet streak for Hart, who could get back to winning ways this weekend against Newcastle. Besides their League Cup loss to the Magpies in October, Manchester City has blanked Newcastle on five straight occasions and Saturday’s home matchup certainly plays into the Citizens’ hands.
Arguably the best defender in England this season, Ivanovic also offers awesome offensive contributions for fantasy owners to benefit from. To that point, the Serbian kicked off 2015 with an assist in three straight matches, and following Tuesday’s Champions League outing versus Paris Saint-Germain, he has scored three goals in his past five matches in all competitions. Ivanovic also scored in Gameweek 1 versus Burnley and Saturday’s return fixture could see him and Chelsea clinch their seventh clean sheet in the past eight home Premiership matches.
With a goal in Arsenal’s most recent league appearance, Koscielny has already set a new single-season best with three scores in the Premiership campaign. Impressively, that return has come in only 15 league starts and the Frenchman also boasts six clean sheets to boot. While this weekend’s match comes against a Crystal Palace side on the rise, the Eagles still sport a bottom-half offensive setup that has scored just one goal in their past three tries versus the Gunners. Although recent-returnees Mile Jedinak
and Yannick Bolasie
could help Palace’s prospects, this is still a match Koscielny should target for a clean sheet.
Keeping the trend of attack-minded defenders, no player over recent seasons has embodied such a prototype better than Baines. Overall, the left-sided stalwart has registered three goals and 11 assists through 26 appearances across all competitions this season. That established offensive threat comes with a great clean sheet opportunity this weekend, as Everton hosts last-place Leicester City on Sunday. While Leicester has lost four consecutive Premiership ties, only Southampton has allowed fewer goals than Everton over their past six efforts, which includes three clean sheets from the Toffees’ last four matches.
Along with ranking second in goals (nine) and third in assists (six) on the Premier League’s highest-scoring team, Hazard also leads all midfielders with 14 clean sheets this season. With those gaudy totals, Hazard could improve his numbers even further this weekend against a far inferior Burnley outfit. Not only does Burnley rank second-last in road goals allowed this season, but they have also allowed a league-high 14 goals over their past six away matches. As a result, the dynamic Hazard should enjoy taking a stab at the Clarets, who figure to be under plenty of pressure from the Blues’ other attacking options as well.
In setting up Arsenal’s opening goal last time out in league play, Ozil brought his fantastic post-knee-injury record to three goals and two assists through four matches in all competitions. The World Cup-winning German also created seven scoring opportunities in Arsenal’s FA Cup win last weekend, evidencing how he has hit the ground running since being cleared fit again. This Saturday, Ozil will take on a Crystal Palace team that has won just one of their past seven competitions at home and the Eagles have also shipped at least two goals to Arsenal in four straight meetings.
While Aston Villa’s league-worst offense has been downright awful this season, the Villains’ recent additions of Gil and Scott Sinclair
could suddenly inject life into the attack at Villa Park. In particular, Gil has shown great ability going forward since arriving in England from Valencia. To that point, Gil has one goal and one assist through four total appearances for Villa, and new manager Tim Sherwood’s attack-minded philosophy could benefit the Spaniard. Facing a Stoke City side reeling from conceding four goals last time out, an increasingly desperate Villa offense makes Gil an under-the-radar selection this week.
Depending on if you consider Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez
a forward or midfielder, nobody has scored more goals than Eriksen’s nine at his position this season. With the 22-year-old a mainstay on manager Mauricio Pochettino’s team sheet, Tottenham have scored at least two goals in four straight matches and have prevailed victoriously in three straight league games at White Hart Lane. Conversely, Eriksen’s Sunday opponents, West Ham, have gone winless from their past five league road trips. With team form on his side and super finishing ability himself, Eriksen could make a decisive impact in Sunday’s London derby.
One player who has opened the New Year with a bang, Lukaku has wonderfully tallied six goals through nine total appearances in 2015. That mark is highlighted by a hit trick Thursday in Europa League action, which should have Lukaku’s confidence brimming ahead of this weekend’s Premier League return. Furthermore, with a matchup against last-place Leicester City, Lukaku’s stock appears even brighter, as only two teams have leaked more goals than the Foxes this season. As an added bonus, Everton has scored at least two goals in four consecutive home matches versus Leicester leading into Sunday’s encounter.
Diego Costa (C)
Back from a three-match suspension, Costa will be available for this weekend’s match versus Burnley. Despite being sidelined in recent weeks, Costa did take the field for Chelsea’s midweek Champions League effort, so any rust from his inactivity should subside by Saturday’s overwhelmingly favorable Premier League outing. As previously mentioned, Burnley unwittingly brings the league’s second-worst defense into Stamford Bridge, where England’s most accomplished attack awaits. Moreover, the top-flight’s top scorer Costa will be hoping for a triumphant return to domestic competition, which makes him the Best XI captain this week.
With a brace in his previous Premiership match, Aguero brought his league goal total to 16, which puts him just one score behind Costa’s league-lead in the category. The Argentine’s opening goal of the campaign came versus Newcastle, who visit the Etihad Stadium for Saturday’s reverse fixture. While Aguero has become known to torment most opponents, he has still scored in two of Manchester City’s past three league games versus the Magpies. Additionally, City have scored eight goals over those meetings and are fresh off notching a four-spot last time out. With a titanic midweek Champions League clash versus Barcelona looming, Aguero could use this weekend’s match as a spirited tune-up to ensure he’s laser-focused in front of goal moving forward.